The Body: A Holistic View by Alfredo López-Austin



[Not Verbatim]

[00:00:00] My studies began in the area of translation of codex manuscripts written in Nahuatl, principally in the beginning of the sixteenth century—really at a very early time when indigenous people had been taught by the “conquistadores” to write in Romanized script. This material was very useful to me. I continued working for several years with the idea of focusing particularly on religion, but doing so without forgetting such important aspects as the social and political make-up of these ancient Nahua communities, and especially of the Mexicas, also called Aztecs.

Along these lines, fate would have it that a very famous, Germ├ín Somolinos D’Ardois, who studied the history of medicine asked me to translate into Spanish some Maya texts which contained medical information. I did this, also going deeply into the study of ancient Nahua medical thought, and discovering in Nahua religious thought (including that involving medicine) not a merely a compendium of separate ideas, but rather a truly integrated thought system.

This gave rise to one of my works on Nahua cosmology in which the center of attention of the cosmology is precisely the human body. There I started becoming interested in the conceptual difference between the male figure and the female figure, with the understanding that cosmology and religious conceptions sprang from everyday life—the common life of human beings. This is how I imagine cosmology—as born not primarily of the musings of isolated philosophers, but rather of the practical response of the participants in large communities through the simple exercise of day-to-day work. The concepts become more generalized and abstract in the social process towards a more integrative, and holistic vision. It was necessary, then, in the first place, to investigate how common men and women lived in these societies, to understand their daily practices, and then study how their ideas would resound in their conceptualization of the cosmos.

Fifty Percent Female?

[03:00:00] What were the results? Clearly, we find ourselves in a society in which the role of women was highly regarded, to the point that balance in the cosmos is impossible without the participation of forces that are considered feminine. This, however, should not lead us in anyway to the conclusion that such a balance is so exact as to suggest fifty percent masculine forces and fifty percent feminine forces. Let’s say that, based on the value of numerical symbols, we can deduce the proportionality of the masculine and the feminine in the cosmos: we could say that the number thirteen might represent the masculine side, while a smaller number, a nine, might represent the feminine side.

How do these two forces become apparent in the cosmos? The feminine aspects, while not negative, pertain to the darker part of the cosmos. While the male corresponds to the sky, sunlight, heat, fire, the life-force, women correspond to the water, earth, the underworld, darkness and to death. So then, we have in the cosmos an eternal struggle between the two contrary forces. This is represented very clearly in the two seasons of the year. Located south of the Tropic of Cancer, Mesoamerica does not have four seasons—spring, summer, fall, winter—but rather it has two extended seasons, a rainy season and a dry season. The masculine part of the cosmos was represented by the dry season, when the sun is bright, when the harvest is reaped, and when the fruit of human labor is recuperated while the rainy season, the darker season, the season of more work, corresponds to the forces of the female.

The Politics of Gender

[5:49:00] From this study of Mesoamerican cosmology, we can derive, among other principles, the following: the two great forces that constitute all of the cosmos; the igneous and the aquatic, or restated, the masculine and the feminine, are forces that by themselves are uncontrollable. They have to confront one another. They have to alternately exert domination in order to make possible the world’s existence. This means that periodically fire is conquered by water, and then water is conquered by fire. This has to do with a game in which the two elements successively contest, one defeating the other, after which the earth once again becomes balanced. This is mirrored in the dichotomy of day and night and many other elements where we always see the contest between two antagonistic forces.

If we transfer this to the political, we also see the notion of the “complementary opposite.” We cannot speak in the Mexica world of only one king. We must conceive that there is a duality of two notable figures or “aspects”—on one side is “Tlatoani” which is the representative of masculine powers, of the solar powers, of dryness. On the other, we have the figure of “Cihuacoatl” which is the representative of feminine powers. For this reason, even though the king is male, his name is that of a serpent-woman. These two personalities correspond to a division of attributes within the actual government itself. One is the great leader of war—this would be “Tlatoani.” The other is in charge of public finances of the state—a function to which is attributed a predominantly feminine character. Of the two personages, the principal was “Tlatoani.” I repeat, we evidently have a society in which the woman is very important but does not prevail, in any way, over the figure of the man.

Machismo and Women Kings

[08:15:00] If we apply our current norms of justice, we must realize that the Nahuas were a “macho” society where, on occasion, male will is exerted arbitrarily over female will. But at the same time we must consider that these are societies in which a woman may occupy important posts. In exceptional cases, in some societies of the period, women actually occupied the position of king (which is not to say “queen” or “consort”), but rather she herself discharged the duties of military head of state—although this was very exceptional. On the other hand, there is a superior “aspect” attributed to men. For example, “oquixihuia”, which means “to be as important as a man,” is a verb that was applied to those women who most distinguished themselves in society. Today, we think of this as an enormous injustice because, evidently, to be important, the woman had to be conceived as having male attributes.

Returning to everyday life, another of these circumstances where we can perceive “superiority” is in actual divorce law. When a man committed adultery, the woman could receive a divorce and vice versa. But in the Mexica world, the man was only an adulterer if he had sexual relations with a married woman. However, a married woman was an adulteress if she had relations with either a married or single man. From this inequality of the two cases, we see that what is being protected is more like a property right asserted by a man over his wife.

An Ideal World or Not?

[10:26:00] [I think I can say that I have lived during a period when Mesoamerican studies can be said to have enjoyed a “boom,” especially during those years when we were able to disabuse ourselves of certain prejudices regarding life in those societies of the past. One of the sources of this “boom” is the discovery (which began ploddingly and then rapidly accelerated) of Mayan writing which has shown us a very different Mayan world than that of which we conceived at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century—a period in which we still thought too ideally of the Mayan world. This renders us a Mesoamerica much more “human,” more linked to everyday life and the life of the common person—the real creators of this worldview.

I think that the last quarter of the 20th century has permitted us (in terms of cosmology which includes opposing complementary figures of the male and female) to describe the great “lineaments.” It’s as if we approached a forest and saw the large outlines of colors of green which indicated to us, more or less, a structure, a composition to the mass as a whole. What, then, is left to us now? A very fruitful path to follow, I think, with more detail, the parameters of the forest, the differences, the great similarities; the large general characteristics of Mesoamerican religion and cosmology. Once these great “lineaments” are understood, I think in the next century we can establish the specific differences of each of the structures of each of the periods in a much more organized manner.